You are awoken by the sound of cheering. At first, the sound slips in drizzling patches through your curtains. Individual voices, raised in fervent joy, lost to the thick and coarse cloth. Morning light, swallowed, eaten, and regurgitated, a pale yellow when compared to the bloody sunrise you know is rising against the gothic backdrop of ringing cathedrals.
Sweet God. The bells have begun to toll. Sonorous bellows of brass giants locked in marble cages high, high in the clouds. The cheering is mortal, but the bells are horrifically divine. You squeeze your eyes tighter; you pull your pillows closer to drown out the light, the sound, the sights that they bring to your mind.
You can imagine them. Far, far below, in the poor, rancid, sweating levels of the city, march lepers ten-thousand strong. Bandaged in bindings swollen by filth, some are true lepers, others the refuse of a society too haughty to care for the ill. You wonder if poor Michella is down there. Does she stamp her feet on the decaying tiles, pushing mud from underneath their worn edges? Has she raised one of those ridiculous effigies, burdened by beads of glass? God. Has she bound and set her arm correctly or been swept up by the hysteria of it all, dutifully suffering beneath that cruel effigy as it grinds her body beneath its weight?
You cannot bear the speculation, and rise. You cannot bear the half-formed light, or the muted sounds, and diligently pull back the curtains to thrust your head into the morning air.
The city of Dema is a layered hell to native or transitory residents. You feel a twinge of sympathy for those who have only arrived recently, unprepared to face this. It is only a twinge for you were not prepared either.
In your middle-home, hewn into the granite chest of Urdan’s Cathedral, you gaze above and below at the crossing paths of the city. Between the cloistered towers of various Gods, the sunrise tosses its light in thin, vertical slashes to paint the stone. Fat clouds of milky white hang above you, as you twist your neck to look up. The clouds crowd the highest levels, where the bells are rung above the world. More paths, thin and tiny in perspective, cross the air between cathedrals. Each carries thousands, marching and calling that wordless chant.
Below you, another sticks their head out. A man, with a balding head, a hooked nose, and eyes set beneath bushy eyebrows. You call to him, asking:
What in the God’s name is it about?
His answer is lost in a swelling roar that shakes your windows, and tousles your hair. Stray hairs find their way into your eyes, your nose, your mouth, and you spit. The man below narrowly dodges your travelling kiss, which falls and falls and falls without you ever seeing its landing. You yell your question again, shouting:
What in the God’s name is fucking worth this?
He does not answer with words, but holds one hand in a circle, fingers forming an ‘O.’ With his other, he thrusts a fist through before bowing his head in religious rapture. You shake your head, but he nods and repeats the gesture before retracting from the window.
It cannot be. It cannot be.
A million-million souls march in celebration, and your world shakes to their cries of exultation.
AN IMMACULATE CONCEPTION! AN IMMACULATE CONCEPTION!
The knock is polite but insistent. Only thinly polite. It is the knock of a man who has places to go, and you are the impediment. By the time you’ve made yourself look presentable, thrust yourself in clothes ‘worthy’ of their presence, and answered the door, the man is not impressed.
He breezes by you, no question of who owns this place. It is his, and always has been. He monologues for long minutes, and you are taken. There are no questions of your plans or place, the responsibilities you have.
You ascend. You are pressed through thronging crowds, who are drawn to your handler’s robes. As you hurry through doorways only for clergy, you hear the beat of believer’s fists against stone and wood. You hear the retort of those things they have made above. Weapons that belch smoke and fire.
You are led before a door. Behind it comes the muffled cries of a woman in great pain. Before the door, a young woman looks at you in sympathy. Her eyes are bleak, and she mouths something to you, lost as her handler roughly pushes her along.
You are in the room, surrounded by men of immaculate character. Priests of every rank, with jewels along their fingers, and rich cream cloth draping their person. They ask you a single thing, ignoring the writhing woman strapped to the metal table.
Can you see it?
Can you see her? Of course, it is impossible to ignore. She is swollen to bursting. She is melting in sweat, there is blood on her lips, hands skinned and raw. She has been here for hours, twisting in pain. She has nothing left. No strength to scream, no will to writhe. Still, she is being broken, pulled vertebrae by vertebrae, vein by vein, beat by beat.
Can you see it? Can you see the God?
You can see the God. It hangs above her. An unknowable mass of things. There are eyes like a doe in there, great wings with feathers of salmon skin, the bent back of a hungry dog, and features stranger still. Fingers with too many knuckles, bent and shaped in twisting spirals. A hollow chest filled with a baby’s first cries.
Can you see it? Can you see the God?
They crowd around you, eyes darting between you and an empty space. You do not know which is worse. The hungry leering in their faces, or the sight of the God twisting its hands in her belly.
They ask again, and you say the truth.
They are not appreciative.
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